This is a reprint – and earlier follow-up on the Orthodox reading of Scripture. I pray it is timely as well.
It is easy from the outside to form an incorrect picture of the Orthodox interpretation of Scripture. There is actually quite a bit of variety among the Fathers when it comes to reading the Word of God. Even in the earliest centuries there were noted differences in the approach that obtained among those trained in Antioch and those trained in Alexandria, the two great centers of Christian exegesis. To a large extent, Antioch won (at least on certain points). Antioch was far more literal in its approach, while Alexandria was more enamoured of allegory. Alexandria was doubtless weakened by the excess of Origen’s allegories but mostly by the monophysite controversy.
But on the whole, Biblical exegesis became largely settled by the great doctrinal controversies during the period of the Ecumenical Councils. The deluge of exegesis endured from the proponents of Arianism made the Church as wary of by-the-seat-of-your-pants Bible interpretation as St. Irenaeus had been a century earlier in dealing with Gnostic Bible handling.
The continued appeal to Tradition, that is, the way the Scriptures had been handled in the past by those who were trusted names within the Church made for a fairly conservative approach to Biblical interpretation. Also, it was noted that in the struggle to give proper voice to Christian doctrine, Scripture alone was sometimes insufficient, at least when it came to writing summarizing statements. Thus much of the battle of St. Athanasius’ use of the word homoousios (“of one being”) in the Creed of Nicaea was the charge that he was introducing a word that was not found in the Scriptures. True, he had. But after nearly a century’s debate, it was clear that no single word within Scripture could say what the single word of St. Athanasius had said. Without this word, the truth of the Trinitarian dogma (known in silence) could not have been well-spoken in public and confessed in the Church.
By the same token, later dogmatic questions, such as that of the Personhood of Christ, though informed by Scripture, could not be settled by the citation of verses alone. Clear theological statements such as those of St. Gregory Nazianzus, “That which is not assumed is not saved,” offered a continuing expression of the matrix of belief required in the Church for the same doctrine of salvation to be preached. Unless Christ is fully man, we cannot be saved. Unless Christ is fully God, we cannot be saved, for only God can give to man what man must have in order to be healed from the wound of sin.
Apart from the conciliar debates, another world of Scriptural exegesis became extremely popular, and that was the work of the great hymnographers. Perhaps the one figure who best combined both Scriptural scholarship and hymn writing into one was that of St. John of Damascus. But there were others, both male and female. To this day the richest commentary on Scripture in the Orthodox Church is to be found in the hymnody in the daily round of services that cycle through the Christian year. The language of the Councils was made to sing. St. Gregory Nazianzus, previously mentioned, delighted in writing poetry far more than prose. Theology is not only true – that which is true should also be beautiful.
The comments on the beauty of Orthodox worship frequently neglect to state that though the actions of the services have their beauty, it is the hymnography soaring above everything that transports the service to heaven, or rather imports heaven to earth. And the content of that hymnography is primarily doctrinal. Never was theology made to sing in such beauty – either before or since.
Today, I believe there is a renewed need for Orthodox attention to Scripture – not because there is something lacking in our worship – but because the study of Scripture has been left in shambles in the West after the past 200 years. Liberal scholarship has collapsed into ludicrous games of dropping colored marbles to “vote” on whether a passage of the gospel is authentic and actually attributable to Christ. Thus far, the Jesus Seminar (the voting group) has only attributed a single statement to Christ.
Fundamentalism lost its way before every it got started following the red herring of Darwinian debate.
There is a need for Orthodoxy to draw from its rich history of exegesis and bring it to the table of Scriptural scholarship – a need for the lex orandi (the rule of praying) to become the lex legenda (the rule of reading) In the course of such we should not be ashamed to say that the Scriptures are the book that is uniquely the Church’s book and that the manner of its reading is uniquely the manner of the Church. It is more than history, more than myth, more than any of the current theories floating about. When held in the hands of the believing Church and rightly read, it is the true Word of God unto salvation. Far too few Christians have heard it sung in such a manner. When placed within the matrix of the Apostolic rule of faith, the Scriptures reveal their treasures like a no earthly thing. It is this exegesis that must be taught to the generations of Orthodox clergy being trained and this exegesis that must be preached in our Churches and shouted from the rooftops.